“We are very grateful to Britain for giving us Nigeria. It is a great thing to belong to a big country. There is always an unspoken contempt for small countries in international affairs, so we are happy to be citizens of a big country,” Obafemi Awolowo told foreign journalists in 1958. Ever since its inception, Nigeria has been pitched, first by its British and later Nigerian rulers, as a commonsensical national project based in significant part on the supposed obviosity that when it comes to countries, bigger is always better. This assumption now enjoys the status of conventional wisdom among many Nigerians, but how accurate is it?
How large a country and its population ought to be for optimal chances of national and global success is still debated by political scientists and economists. There are strong arguments in favour of big countries. Most revolve around economic potential. A big country offers a large domestic market, local businesses can use to grow until they become strong enough to compete internationally. China is a great recent example of this. Larger countries can also pool resources from their many citizens to build strong public services in key spheres like healthcare and education.
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The problem is that these advantages of scale may never materialise if the large country is dysfunctional. Nigeria’s 200 million-strong domestic market, the 7th-largest in the world by numbers, has not resulted in a single Nigerian Fortune 500 company, in other words, a major global economic player. Switzerland, with a tiny domestic market of 8.5 million people, has produced fourteen Fortune 500 companies. South Korea, population 51 million, is home to sixteen global giants. Taiwan, population 24 million, has produced ten. Popular migration destination Canada boasts thirteen Fortune 500 companies despite having a modest domestic market of 37 million people.
Of course, there are many unsuccessful small countries. However, what is undeniable is that the capacity of a state to effectively coordinate economic and other relevant activities on its territory is key to a successful economy. This coordinating capacity is cheaper and easier to achieve in smaller states than larger ones
In terms of per capita wealth, most highly successful countries today are small or relatively small in terms of population. Of the 10 nations with the highest GDP per capita in the world, eight have a population below 10 million, according to IMF. Of the 20 nations with the highest GDP per capita, seventeen have a population below 40 million. America is the only country with a population above 100 million to make it to the top 20 list.
On the African landscape, Botswana, the continent’s favourite success story, is a country of just 2.2 million people. Mauritius, another rare positive example, has a population of 1.2 million. Additionally, the Mo Ibrahim Governance Index ranks both Botswana and Mauritius among the top 5 best-governed African states, alongside Namibia, Cape Verde and Seychelles.
All these five countries have populations below 3 million. While still facing a long road ahead in terms of development, post-genocide Rwanda is an inspiring example of how an African state can be turned around in less than a generation. The fact it has a population of 12, and not 120 million, likely made things that much easier. Correlation may not prove causality, but it does provide food for thought.
Of course, there are many unsuccessful small countries. However, what is undeniable is that the capacity of a state to effectively coordinate economic and other relevant activities on its territory is key to a successful economy. This coordinating capacity is cheaper and easier to achieve in smaller states than larger ones. The Nigerian state clearly lacks coordinating capacity. Little suggests this will change significantly anytime soon, especially considering the government simply cannot keep up with Nigeria’s rapidly-expanding population.
The case of America is rather the exception to the rule in terms of being a highly-populated country that is significantly wealthy in per capita terms. And it is definitely the only highly-diverse heavily-populated country whose citizens are indisputably well-off on average. Japan, the only other nation significantly wealthy in per capita terms with a population over 100 million, is culturally homogenous.
But before we start considering diverse America a model to emulate, it is worth recalling the methods by which America’s success was achieved. Not via compromise arrangements between its various racial groups, but via open domination by its majority white group. For the first 200 years following America’s 1776 declaration of independence, its white elites ran the country how they saw fit while other weaker groups had little choice but to go along.
Only in recent decades have demographic gains emboldened racial minorities to challenge white dominance, part of the reason for the racial tensions that got Donald Trump elected president. My broader point here is of a practical, not moral, nature. In Nigeria, no single ethnic group and its elites have the numbers and power to steer the country in a consistent direction the way white Anglo-Saxon protestants, for better and worse, did for so long in America. Nigeria thus resembles an octopus, complete with tentacles flailing in all different directions. Apart from agreement on the need for “development”, it is difficult to discern any pattern of cohesive cross-regional Nigerian consensus in the sphere of how-to’s.
The idea a “good government” will one day emerge from this confused octopus and catapult Nigeria to development seems increasingly highly suspect. I don’t claim to have all the answers. I am just thinking out loud here. Desperate for answers as I know are others. In his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of Nigeria’s civil war this January, Wole Soyinka called for a frank reflection on how Nigeria has been constituted and the consequences of that. “Have we been had?”, Soyinka queried of the Nigerian project.
The rhetorical nudge is aimed at steering us towards a realistic answer to the fundamental question facing Nigeria’s inhabitants: How can this space we live in be made to work? As Soyinka himself has suggested, it is difficult to imagine any practical solution to the Nigerian conundrum that would not involve a radical reimagination and reorganisation of its territorial space. Instead of a heavily centralised authority in Aso Rock that lacks the capacity to secure the territory under its control, much less coordinate its economy, wouldn’t the Nigerian space be better organised into smaller, more manageable, de-facto self-governing political units in clusters larger than the current state system? Not because Yorubas hate Fulanis and Igbos or vice-versa, but because smaller states are more easily manageable than larger states.
There is no silver bullet here. No particular kind of politico-spatial organisation guarantees success. The question rather is about which option offers the greatest realistic probability for success. Big hasn’t worked. So perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board and start small? Awolowo, who generally advocated maximum federalism, declared in 1958 that it is a great thing to belong to a big country. I would perhaps add today that it is a great thing to belong to a big successful country. For it is difficult to see the benefits to regular inhabitants of belonging to a big unsuccessful country. When it comes to countries, what ultimately matters is success, not size.